Was Irish physical style a glimpse of future?
SOUTH BEND -- Offensive tackle Zack Martin had seen more than glimpses in practice lately, longer stretches actually that suggested Notre Dame’s defensive line diamond-in-the-rough was eventually going to be more diamond than rough.
Sophomore Jarron Jones sort of colored outside the lines when it came to the Senior Day theme Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, but the result was not only welcome but perhaps portending.
ND’s last resort at nose guard played at a level that could only make injured senior All-America candidate Louis Nix proud, dominating in the middle of the Irish defense with a career-high seven tackles and blocking a fourth-quarter Brigham Young field goal as the Irish overcame an Arctic jolt from Mother Nature and the nation’s No. 13 offense, 23-13.
It was the lowest scoring output of the season for the Cougars (7-4), who were coming off a 59-point performance against Idaho State and were averaging 33.5 points per game. And it came in 26-degree temperatures — the coldest reading at kickoff in 22 seasons — intermittent show showers and 20 mile-per-hour winds, gusting to 35.
Combined with a bullying running game, a poised performance from quarterback Tommy Rees in his final collegiate home game, some special special teams moments and a whole bunch of big plays from non-seniors all over the field, Notre Dame (8-3) painted a picture not only what might have been this season but maybe what this team might evolve into next season.
“This is the way we've got to play football. This is Notre Dame football,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly, whose first recruiting class became the first seniors at Notre Dame since 2003 to win all four of their Senior Day matchups.
“This is the way we need to play. This is what we're capable of playing. It's a much more physical brand of football. They had a chance to go out and show in their last home game the kind of football team that they really are.”
And it’s largely what was missing in ND’s three losses this season, two of which came to teams that aren’t even receiving votes in the AP poll (Michigan and Pitt).
That this blast of proficiency and punch surfaced Saturday against a team that projected to bring some of the worst matchup problems the Irish have had to deal with all season — including the best of the true dual-threat quarterbacks thrown at ND and a defense that rarely has been overmatched physically — can be perhaps partially explained by ND’s ability to parlay the Senior Day swirl of emotions in pregame past the stage where the players hug and kiss their parents.
Kelly hinted that it had more to do with the coaching staff demanding it, raising the bar of discipline, toughness, even cleanliness in the locker room this week to a level that would produce a snapshot of a team many thought would be this BCS-esque coming out of the gate.
But there is no BCS, not after the upset loss to Pitt. And some wondered if there was any real motivation left for a team whose bowl choices are largely unaffected by how it finishes at this point.
“When you're part of the team, you play for one another and you play for the university and you play for the pride that you put in the program and that you have in yourself,” said Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, who a season after being booed when he came into a game in relief against Purdue received the loudest and warmest of ovations before the game on Saturday.
“You won't find a better group of guys than we have in that locker room, and to be able to share this field with them and play with them, that's all the motivation that you need,” Rees said.
With scouts from the New Era Pinstripe (Yankee Stadium) and AdvoCare V100 (Shreveport, La.) bowls looking on, Rees played more of a supporting role, yet an emotional one. As he was kneeling down in victory formation to kill the final seconds, the student section started chanting.
“Tommy, Tommy, TOMMY, TOMMY!!!”
“That was pretty special — hard not to get choked up with emotion in a moment like that,” said Rees, who threw for 235 yards, completing 15 of 28 passes with a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone and a 61-yard touchdown pass to DaVaris Daniels on ND’s opening drive.
It was the 59th TD pass of his career, one short of Jimmy Clausen’s 60 for No. 2 on Notre Dame’s career list. A 30-yard pass to fellow senior TJ Jones later pushed Rees over the 7,000-yard mark in passing yardage in his career.
“I thought he played well,” Kelly said. “I mean, you never want to throw an interception down in the red zone. He had an opportunity, obviously, to get the ball out quicker, but he did some good things for us today.”
One of the best things he did was handing the ball off to Cam McDaniel. The junior ran for a career-high 117 yards on 24 carries. Freshman Tarean Folston, who made his first start, added 78 yards on 13 carries and a two-yard touchdown smash into the end zone with 4:43 left in the first half that gave the Irish the lead for good, 14-7.
Junior Kyle Brindza added three field goals, including a 51-yarder with 6:53 left in regulation that provided the winning margin and that Kelly had to be talked into.
It was Brindza’s fifth field goal of 50 yards or more in his career, two more than the two men who share second place on that ND career list — Harry Oliver and David Ruffer.
“When you've got a guy with that kind of confidence, asking to kick the football, it makes it easier for me to make a decision to put him out there,” Kelly said. “So he's a great weapon for us.”
So were junior safety Eilar Hardy, a seldom-used player up until about a month ago who finished with a near team-high eight tackles; and freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith, who batted down a Taysom Hill pass deep in Irish territory intended for active NCAA receptions leader Cody Hoffman on a play BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was certain was going to be a TD.
“I actually was signaling touchdown,” Mendenhall said when he saw the second-and-goal play from the Irish 6 develop.
Two plays later, BYU kicker Justin Sorenson lined up for a chippy 22-yard field goal, and Jones broke through the protection to block it. It was one of many noticeable game-changing plays the converted defensive end made all day.
Nix, ND’s normal starter had season-ending surgery Thursday. His backup, senior Kona Schwenke, started the game but his high ankle sprain that had kept him out of action until Saturday since the Navy win three weeks ago, flared up and he finished the game in sweats. So it was Jones’ moment.
“When he’s on, he’s tough to stop,” said Martin ND’s fifth-year senior tackle. “Probably just by looking at him, you can see he’s got really, really long arms. So when he gets his hands on you, me and some of the shorter guys can hardly touch him when he’s fully extended. We knew he was capable of it, and we needed him to step up with Louis out. So it was great to see.
“Jarron we felt like was coming on and he played exceedingly well, and really happy for him,” Kelly said. “But we thought this was something, that when we recruited him, that he was capable of, and he showed that today.”